When the former Merillat plant in Atkins is once again operational, it is expected to produce 100 bourbon barrels an hour.
Thanks to Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc., a taste of Southwest Virginia will be infused into the beverage the barrels will ultimately store. Alison Mays, vice chair of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, shared that observation Friday afternoon as officials from around the region and the commonwealth gathered to celebrate the company’s plans to create 160 new jobs in Smyth and Washington counties while investing $35 million to refurbish and equip the Atkins plant and develop a new companion stave mill that produces the barrels’ narrow wooden staves in the Glade Spring area.
Mays offered a drink-less toast of “cheers” to the celebration that brought Gov. Ralph Northam to Smyth County.
The governor described the Speyside decision to locate these two operations in Southwest Virginia as “tremendous wins for the two counties and the region.”
By modernizing the one-time Merillat plant, Northam said, a “shuttered building is getting new life.”
He also celebrated that the commonwealth’s jobless rate is down to its lowest point in a decade – 3.1 percent. However, he acknowledged that the rate is far from that low in many parts of Virginia, including Southwest Virginia. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Bourbon barrels must be new, made of white oak, and then charred on the inside. Speyside has agreed that the stave mill will procure approximately 80 percent of the white oak logs used for stave production from Virginia growers. Northam gave a nod to that agreement, noting that Smyth County’s forest-related industries generate over $131 million annually and are responsible for 725 jobs.
As Darren Whitmer, Speyside Bourbon Cooperage’s general manager, came to the podium, he lifted his arms in celebration and asked the audience, “How cool is this?”
Thanking all the officials who worked to make the Smyth and Washington plans come to fruition, Whitmer said it’s “truly a dream come true for Speyside.”
With Merillat having been a woodworking factory, Whitmer observed that will help get the cooperage up to speed faster than normal.
He projected that the stave mill will be operational in 12 to 14 months with the cooperage coming online just a few months afterward.
Looking around the plant, he said, “We’ll be making an American product right here.”
While the barrels will be American made, the bourbon they’ll store will be sent around the world. Speyside is benefiting from a worldwide boom in the bourbon market that has experienced double-digit growth in recent years.
Del. Jeff Campbell celebrated that the lights will soon be on again in the plant that can be seen from Interstate 81. He remembered working in the Merillat plant during summers when he was putting himself through college. Later in life, when he’d return to Smyth County from work in other locales, Campbell described coming around the curve on I-81 and seeing the plant’s lights. “I knew I was home,” he recalled.
When Merillat shut down and hundreds lost their jobs, Campbell said, he was despondent.
Lauding the work of the many officials who made the projects possible, he said, “The lights will soon be back on.”
His peer, Del. Israel O’Quinn, thanked the Speyside officials for believing in Southwest Virginia and its people. “They’re second to none,” he said.
O’Quinn also reflected on the two-county project as proof of what can happen when localities work together. “Our neighbors are not our enemies,” he said.
Smyth County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Dishner celebrated Speyside’s Scottish roots.
Speyside Bourbon Cooperage Inc. is an offspring of Speyside Cooperage Ltd., founded in Scotland in 1947. In 2008 Speyside Cooperage was sold to the Tonnellerie François Frères Group, a publicly held company founded in 1910 and headquartered in France. The company operates stave mills and bourbon cooperages in Kentucky, Ohio and Bath County.
Dishner along with several other officials praised the work of Smyth County Administrator Michael Carter, who has been described as working tirelessly to make the Speyside projects happen. At Tuesday evening’s supervisors meeting, Dishner read a letter from Whitmer commending Carter’s work, saying he was “very hands on.”
With Smyth County’s economic development director position open, Carter has been pulling double duty, working both jobs.
Rep. Morgan Griffith was also on hand for the celebration. He extended gratitude to the governor and his team for their work on economic development in rural Virginia. He promised Speyside officials that he stands ready to help them on the federal level if need be.
Whitmer invited the crowd to return when the plant is operational and burning the white oak. “It smells good,” he declared.
On the job front, Speyside officials said they’re not accepting applications yet, but will make job announcements through local media and job fairs once they are ready to hire. They anticipate hiring for each facility will begin when each plant nears completion of construction.
Prospective employees don’t need woodworking experience. Company materials said, “While experience working at a sawmill, in logging or other forest products business is desirable, we train all employees. We also like to work with individuals who have studied forestry in school. However, all we look for is someone willing to learn and work hard and be part of our family. Everyone has to be trained to work our equipment, so everyone has a chance at these jobs.”
As the plants are becoming operational, Speyside officials said, “We are part of each of these communities now. We will work with local providers whenever and wherever possible. Many companies such as loggers, trucking companies, plumbers, electricians and more will benefit from Speyside’s operations in Smyth and Washington. One of our core values is good corporate citizenship. We want to be an engaged member of each business community.